Should a society based on the principles of democracy and Western thinking permit people to circumcise children? The answer to that question may well be no. I suggest, however, that this is the wrong question through which to understand the issue of circumcision.
It is logical to assert that people should not be allowed to act violently toward others just because they think God told them to do so. A case was reported in Australia in which four men broke into the home of a Muslim man and allegedly whipped him with an electrical cord to punish him for having violated sharia law by drinking alcohol. The perpetrators were rightly condemned by other Muslims. This example illustrates the logical principle that violence cannot be allowed on the basis of claims of divine sanction.
Similarly, in approaching the issue of circumcision, if the question is whether scriptural mandates justify violence, the logical answer should be no. However, I suggest that this is the wrong question. Instead the question should be about how assertive we should be about our Western ways and logic when they clash with other ways of being and thinking. I think some humility is in order.
Yes, we have put a man on the moon, and made some progress on racism and sexism. But the Western way has also been horribly destructive to some social structures, traditions, and many lives. In Understanding the Present, Bryan Appleyard argues that “scientism”—the approach that privileges the scientific way of knowing over all others—often obliterates much of the spiritual and mystical.
I reflect on the time when I was let in on the secret initiation rites of the Pitjantjatjara people of the Central Australian desert. My reaction was that these were unreasonably harsh. And yet, the initiated man I spoke to was dignified and clear about who he is, while many of his people who have been cut off from their traditional ways are destroying themselves and each other.
Don Palmer, an exceptional man working with indigenous Australians, wrote: “It is matters of the spirit — the Kurrunpa, as those in the Centre [of Australia] would say, that are fundamental to there being any future at all. Without the spirit being valued, nourished, and cared for, then no amount of clever western medicine will serve any purpose of consequence.”
For me and, I suspect, for many Jews, the ritual of circumcision, like those of tribal and first peoples, transcends logic and is a primal and deeply important spiritual ritual. It is important not only because some of us believe God wants it. It is also important because it identifies us and binds us and our children to a nonnegotiable bond with our concept of God and our past, all the way to Abraham.
Reflecting on my own family’s experience, I remember how a pasty white tinge was noticed on my face while I was enduring the circumcision of my third son. The thought of the cutting and the newborn’s cries get me every time. Still none of this caused me to hesitate to go through it all again with our fourth and fifth sons. The idea that my son would not enter into the covenant in the traditional way is, for me, unthinkable.
When appearing before the Local Government Council of Canterbury in Sydney, Australia, I was asked if religious priorities should ever be overshadowed by other community considerations. They were considering restrictions on the operating hours of new religious buildings, and this was of concern to Muslim groups. I answered that in some cases it must. We must weigh up the benefits to one group against the compromises asked of others.
Those who consider legal bans on circumcision—bans such as the San Francisco measure that was struck from the city’s November 2011 ballot after a judge ruled that local jurisdictions may not regulate the work of health care professionals—should bear in mind the devastation caused by Western cultural imperialism to other peoples. With that awareness, they should consider the deep importance of circumcision in Jewish and Muslim heritages and weigh that up against the violation of their conscience caused by the circumcision of children.
(To read more opposing views on circumcision, click here.)